Wednesday, June 29, 2011

To the Last Drop

Syncrude's oil sands operations, Fort McMurray, Alberta. Photo by: David Dodge, CPAWS

This story about Alberta's tar sands produced by Al Jazeera, will introduce Americans to their largest source of imported oil - Canadian tar, or oil sands. Clearly, the petroleum industry has made every effort to bury this story (as they un-bury their black gold.)



Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Circumference of Home

 Coincidentally, soon after beginning walking tours of my Santa Rosa hometown, I heard a story on Wisconsin Public Radio's "To the Best of Our Knowledge". It was an interview with Kurt Hoelting, author of The Circumference of Home. After learning the magnitude of his personal "carbon footprint", Hoelting drew a 100-kilometer radius circle around his home on Whidbey Island near Seattle, and vowed that, for a full year, he would abandon his car and, under his own power "live locally", exploring and rediscovering his immediate environment. After hearing the story, and recognizing a kindred spirit, I immediately ordered the book from the library.

When I asked Drew (who, of course, lives on Whidbey Island) if he knew Hoelting, he said he certainly did and even offered some assistance on Hoelting's book. Drew reminded me of an article he had written back in 1997. At the time, Drew joined Hoelting on a kayak adventure in Alaska's Inside Passage and wrote about it in the New Age Journal.

Late in the book, I see Hoelting quotes Drew in a chapter epigraph, and pays further tribute to him in the book's Acknowledgments.

Anyway, this is a fascinating journey, both internal and external, as the author struggles to reconcile his membership in modern American society with ancient traditions of respect and reverence for the natural world.
With just the slightest shift in consciousness, Hoelting's discoveries and revelations during this year "in circumference" are accessible to each of us.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Chile court suspends Patagonian HidroAysen dam project

The confluence of the rivers Neff and Baker in awesome Patagonia. Photo taken during my Americas Trip in 2006.

At roughly the same time as my visit to Rancho Chacabuco, Lisa Pike of Patagonia (the company) dispatched A Letter From Chacabuco, which spoke of the threat of development in the region. Then, I was unaware of plans for hydroelectric projects here. Had I known of intentions to dam these rivers, I would indeed have been sickened.


BBC News Latin America & Caribbean

20 June 2011

A court in Chile has ordered the suspension of a multi-billion-dollar dam project in the south of the country, following objections by legislators and environmentalists.

The five dams are to be built on two rivers in the sparsely-populated Aysen area of Chilean Patagonia.

The project was approved in May, after heavy backing from President Sebastian Pinera.

But the court has now ruled it needs to review the approval process.

It is not clear how long the court will take to decide on the matter.

The project has sparked a number of protests, some of which have seen violent clashes between demonstrators and the security forces.

The government says the dams are needed to meet the country's increasing demand for electricity.

But environmentalists say they will damage the area's fragile ecology and its tourist potential.

They also say the energy produced will be used mainly for the country's mining industry.

Rugged beauty

The five dams will be built on two fast flowing rivers that run into the Pacific - two on the river Baker, and three on the river Pascua.

They drain lakes in a region that is famous for its rugged beauty - a landscape of glaciers, ice-fields, mountains and fjords.

The dam project, which is a joint venture between a Chilean company and a Spanish-owed one, will cost some $3bn (£1.85bn) and is designed to generate 2,750MW of power.

The company, HidroAysen, says the project "represents a cost-effective, sustainable, reliable, and ecologically viable source of energy".

It says it involves flooding nearly 60 sq km (23 sq miles) of land, but will provide 4,000 jobs at its peak.

But other potential sticking points lie ahead for the company.

Correspondents say one of these could be approval to build the more than 2,000km (1,240 miles) of power lines needed to carry the electricity generated from the dams to the capital, Santiago.

Friday, June 17, 2011

America is not at war in Libya?

Wreckage of U.S. Air Force F-15E lost March 21, 2011 in Libya. Source: REUTERS / Suhaib Salem

It is outrageous that the Obama Administration, as the Bush Administration before it (and all Administrations have since World War II), is using nuanced legal interpretations to consolidate power in the Executive and erode the balance of powers prescribed in the U.S. Constitution.

Under guidance from Executive Branch legal counsel, President Obama has declared that, in ordering military operations in Libya, he has not violated The War Powers Act of 1973 (let alone the United States Constitution!)

The War Powers Act Serves to permit the President, as Commander in Chief, to act expeditiously to defend against a threat to our nation or our armed forces. It requires that the President seek the approval of Congress within a specified period following the commencement of hostilities.

The Act was the People's response to the illegal actions of the Nixon Administration  which, without the support of Congress or the American People, escalated combat operations in Vietnam, secretly expanding them into Laos and Cambodia, in clear violation of national and international law.

But debate about the intent of the War Powers Act is merely a sideshow here. The President is clearly in violation of the United States Constitution, an impeachable offense. As Commander in Chief, he unilaterally (without Congressional authorization) decided to attack a nation that was not threatening the United States.

According to the Constitution, only Congress can "declare war". (The War Powers Act, attempted to address the ambiguities between "declared" and increasingly common "undeclared" wars. Under the Act, the Executive Branch would be allowed to initiate military action when our nation or our armed forces were subject to imminent threat, but it required The President obtain Congressional approval within 60 days following the onset of hostilities, or terminate operations. Upon request, an extension to 90 days might be granted.)

Since 1973, galled by this blatant attempt to restrain the President, the ever-more-monarchical Executive has defied Congressional attempts to challenge or reign in its power.

Among the current justifications the White House is testing: the duration of American air "combat operations" were of insufficient duration to require the mandated Congressional approval. (A nuclear attack and retaliation could be finished within an hour. Is that also subject to the "duration test"?)

Now, it is claimed that NATO is leading the assault on Libya and that the U.S. is merely providing intelligence (from CIA "boots on the ground", it's suspected), logistical support and, no doubt, materiel. (Iran-Contra or Bay of Pigs revisited?) Again, a distraction from the crime of waging war without authorization. (It should be noted that the U.S. provides 75% of NATO's funding.)

In the present examples of Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan (incredible!) we see the "Unitary Executive", (the idealized vision of an omnipotent Executive Branch promoted by Neoconservatives) consolidating its grip on the Nation's "command and control apparatus." Unchecked, this concentration of power threatens the freedom not only of all Americans, but of all nations.

This is not Obama's doing. It is the office and the "Fortress America" culture he has stepped into. The collapse of democracy in this country began decades ago. But, contrary to his campaign (and current) rhetoric, he submits to the precedent of making decisions that lead to further consolidation of power and, inevitably, the violent scenes we are witnessing in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

As I watch citizens rise up against dictators in the "Arab Spring", I have to ask: would Americans ever have the courage to stand up to their government? I am afraid we are a nation of cowards, preferring comfort, convenience and entertainment to confronting the powers that are increasingly stealing our freedoms, our fortunes and our future.

I suggest the citizens of Libya start collecting the scrap metals, plastics and electronics from ordinance falling upon their land. These remnants will provide positive identification of those nations who are "at war".

For once I agree with John Boehner: Obama's statement "doesn't pass the straight-face test." More importantly, President Obama's unconstitutional war and, further, declaration of immunity from accountability under the War Powers Act is an impeachable offense.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

(Click above to hear the author on "Fresh Air")
"But it wasn't clear to me just how plastic my world had become until I decided to go an entire day without touching anything plastic. The absurdity of this experiment became apparent about ten seconds into the appointed morning when I shuffled bleary-eyed into the bathroom: the toilet seat was plastic. I quickly revised my plan. I would spend the day writing down everything I touched that was plastic.

Within forty-five minutes, I had filled an entire page in my Penway Composition Book...

By the end of the day...the list included 196 entries..."

This fascinating look at the everyday encounters with plastics in our environment traces the history, development and our tortured love affair with plastics. Freinkel takes us to the refineries that produce the building blocks, the laboratories that develop the complex polymer chains, to manufacturing plants, wholesale and retail operations, municipal waste  treatment facilities, recycling operations and also explores the unintended consequences of our "one-way waste stream".

The account is a fairly balanced look at both the immense value and convenience and even environmental benefits plastics have brought to our lives, and the serious challenges such an abundant material has created in terms of health (with a thorough discussion of phthalates and other plasticizers), the environment and promotion of a "disposable world".

She gives considerable coverage to the search for solutions to plastic's "persistence" in the environment and development of alternatives to petroleum-based resins, weighing the merits of each line of research and development.

It's an entertaining and very educational work of investigative journalism.

Friday, June 10, 2011

"Occupying Iraq, State Department-Style"

U.S. Embassy, Baghdad (one of 21 buildings in the 104-acre compound)

A Frat House With Guns in Baghdad
By Peter Van Buren
Published on

Way out on the edge of Forward Operating Base Hammer, where I lived for much of my year in Iraq as a Provincial Reconstruction Team leader for the U.S. Department of State, there were several small hills, lumps of raised dirt on the otherwise frying-pan-flat desert. These were “tells,” ancient garbage dumps and fallen buildings.

Thousands of years ago, people in the region used sun-dried bricks to build homes and walls. Those bricks had a lifespan of about 20 years before they began to crumble, at which point locals just built anew atop the old foundation. Do that for a while, and soon enough your buildings are sitting on a small hill.

At night, the tell area was very dark, as we avoided artificial light in order not to give passing insurgents easy targets. In that darkness, you could imagine the earliest inhabitants of what was now our base looking at the night sky and be reminded that we were not the first to move into Iraq from afar. It was also a promise across time that someday someone would undoubtedly sit atop our own ruins and wonder whatever happened to the Americans.

From that ancient debris field, recall the almost forgotten run-up to the American invasion, the now-ridiculous threats about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, Secretary of State Colin Powell lying away his own and America’s prestige at the U.N., those "Mission-Accomplished" days when the Marines tore down Saddam’s statue and conquered Baghdad, the darker times as civil society imploded and Iraq devolved into civil war, the endless rounds of purple fingers for stage-managed elections that meant little, the Surge and the ugly stalemate that followed, fading to gray as President George W. Bush negotiated a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 and the seeming end of his dreams of a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East.

Now, with less than seven months left until that withdrawal moment, Washington debates whether to honor the agreement, or -- if only we can get the Iraqi government to ask us to stay -- to leave a decent-sized contingent of soldiers occupying some of the massive bases the Pentagon built hoping for permanent occupancy.

To the extent that any attention is paid to Iraq here in Snooki’s America, the debate over whether eight years of war entitles the U.S. military to some kind of Iraqi squatter’s rights is the story that will undoubtedly get most of the press in the coming months.

How This Won’t End

Even if the troops do finally leave, the question is: Will that actually bring the U.S. occupation of Iraq to a close? During the invasion of 2003, a younger David Petraeus famously asked a reporter: “Tell me how this ends.”

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Unusual June weather

A low pressure system parked 200 miles or so west of San Francisco this morning, bringing a good soaking to the area.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Gayngs and White Hinterland at The Independent, San Francisco

The Minneapolis-based rock group Gayngs performed at The Independent in San Francisco Wednesday night. It was their first visit to San Francisco. I became aware of Gayngs during the past year, after hearing a track by the Rosebuds in the film Easier with Practice. That led, via Ivan Howard's connection with both bands, to my stumbling upon Gayngs. It's a remarkably tight ensemble of talented musicians who display a high level of sophistication and precision. A year ago they released their acclaimed debut album "Relayted". (Apparently all the tracks were recorded at a tempo of 69 beats per minute, 69BPM, adagio to classical musicians.) Wednesday's playlist was entirely from the album.

Though I arranged with the band's manager to get a "photo pass", at the door I learned that photography with SLRs is limited to the first three songs "then you have to move away from the stage". (Except for flash use, cellphones and small point-and-shoot cameras are not restricted.) I knew that it was a sold-out show, but when I saw the crowd swell to capacity just as Gayngs was about to come out, I decided it wasn't worth jostling just for a blog photo. So I parked myself in the balcony and (under the influence of a couple beers and an atmosphere laced with marijuana smoke,) took some long, slow shots. Next time, I'm simply going to enjoy the music (and maybe jump into the crowd and get jostled!)

Gayngs open with
"The Gaudy Side of Town". Ryan Olsen, co-founder, with the Mac.